SADLY, CIAO BELLA IS NOW CLOSED. THEIR GELATO AND SORBET ARE STILL AVAILABLE AT RETAIL STORES.
Many years ago, I worked at a great little French bistro called Café Joul. In many ways, it was the place I first discovered quality dining in the city. I really developed a passion for the food there and the restaurant industry itself. And one of the things I’ll never forget is how they got their ice cream and sorbets. They were all supplied from Ciao Bella. I had never heard of this company before and loved their interesting flavors (like Rose Petal and Pumpkin Spice) so much that I even searched the city to find pints to include at my Thanksgiving dinner.
That was back in 2004. Ciao Bella was once the main gelato supplier for hipper, quality-focused restaurants in the city. Much has changed since then.
Now I’d say most restaurants either make their own ice cream, get it from another local source (Il Laboratorio del Gelato, Van Leeuwen), or just add bacon on top and call it a day. I can’t remember the last time I saw Ciao Bella on a NY restaurant menu. It sort of fell out of fashion (the owner sold it and opened Il Laboratorio, so probably brought customers with him). Or maybe we’ve just discovered in the last 6 years that gelato can be done a lot better with more innovation.
I’m sure the company doesn’t mind too much because in lieu of supplying local NY restaurants, Ciao Bella has expanded – selling their products in grocery stores and distributing the ice cream all across the country (there’s even a kiosk in the Ferry Building in San Francisco). Ciao Bella is now a nationally recognized brand, but it all started in NY.
So I found one of their few remaining storefronts on Mott Street in Nolita. For those that are not familiar with NYC’s strange neighborhood nicknaming phenomenon, Nolita stands for North of Little Italy. The company originally started in Little Italy, so I was very close to the source (although I’m sure that’s no longer where the gelato is made).
Ciao Bella is barely a shop. There’s nowhere to sit and it’s designed literally so you come in, see the flavors, order, and then walk out the exit door. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the floor also worked as a conveyer belt.
I was a bit surprised at the limited number of flavors. And it seemed as if they were out of many of them as well. It was a Saturday night, but well before 9pm. You’d think they’d be fully stocked for their prime time rush. I started my tasting, focusing on the gelatos and only making note of their interesting sorbet flavors (blood orange, blackberry cabernet).
The African chocolate (I’ve never had African chocolate) was really good. It was a bitter very dark chocolate that would rank up there with some of the artisanal chocolates coming out of Brooklyn. There was hope here, except the experience went downhill after that.
The cookies n cream tasted sort of artificial, which strikes me as strange considering the basic flavor components are vanilla, fresh cream, and chunks of Oreo-type cookies. The Maple Ginger Snap was overwhelmed with ginger cookies killing any sort of maple goodness. My favorite gelato option is anything involving hazelnut. So I had to try the Italian Alba Hazelnut. It too immediately tasted of an extract and I found it a little too sweet. If this was my first experience with hazelnut gelato, it might have been my last.
Besides the mint, the gelato all had a nice, soft light texture to them. I found it to be lacking in the dense flavor department and I feel some of their flavors are compromised by sweet extracts, which I can only attribute to either laziness or cheaper mass production.
For the most part, the gelato was pleasant. I just expected more from what was once NY’s pre-eminent gelato supplier. Times have a-changed, my friend. Makes me want to drop back into Café Joul and check out their current gelato supplier. I hope they’ve changed with the times.
Is Ciao Bella the best ice cream in NY? Maybe once many years ago, but with progress (or selling out), they’ve slipped behind as other more innovative and quality focused companies have taken their place, leaving them with a 6 out of 10.
|285 Mott Street (between E. Houston and Prince Street)
|27 East 92nd Street (between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue)
Upper East Side
|54 Grand Central Terminal, Lower Dining Concourse
|225 Liberty Street in World Financial Center